Growing Cities On The Frontlines of Climate Change

The U.N.’s annual climate conference that just wrapped up in Dubai had an unprecedented focus on food and agriculture. An impressive 134 world leaders signed on to the COP28 United Arab Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, which seeks to address “global emissions while protecting the lives and livelihoods of farmers who live on the frontlines of climate change.” Agriculture is a huge consumer of water and a major emitter of greenhouse gases. It affects and is affected by climate change. Even so, a focus on agriculture should not distract from the need to address cities, where most people live.

Today, some 56 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and an estimated 70 percent will by 2050. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are nearly there already: 65 percent of the population is urban, a number that has almost doubled since 1960. As cities grow, governments must be sensitive to the climate impacts of their practices in cities and the countryside simultaneously.

The total population of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region almost quadrupled from around 100 million in 1950 to about 380 million in 2000, growing faster than every other region. In addition to the pull of economic opportunity, two major trends pushed people into cities. The first was the effects of conflicts. Iraq still has over a million internally displaced persons (IDPs), and violence pushed millions more out of the country and into neighboring countries’ cities. In many cases, war has irrevocably changed their communities and pushed them to find security and economic opportunity elsewhere.  

The second was water scarcity and degradation of formerly arable land. Iraq’s recent history has many signs of both. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that between 2016 and 2022, 15 percent of the population in central and southern Iraq have been displaced due to climate change and environmental degradation. Environmental factors have displaced over 50 percent of the population in some subdistricts of Thi-qar and Maysan.

The mere act of moving to cities makes some aspects of climate change worse. One challenge is the “urban heat island” effect, where cement landscapes absorb midday heat, and air conditioners, cars, and other machines pump hot air into the streets. As a result, depending on exactly where you are in Damascus or Baghdad, peak temperatures in the same city at the same time could vary as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists suggest a number of ways to reduce urban temperatures through appropriate urban planning, green spaces, and even adequately treating wastewater. Still, only a few of the countries most vulnerable to climate change are doing much in this regard.

In many cities, governments have plans to expand housing for rising urban populations, but their plans often do not meet the need. From Cairo to Damascus, governments have prioritized high-end development, but the real need is legalizing informal housing and building more low-income units. Iraq is facing a 3.5 million unit housing shortage, and it is unclear if current plans to fill the gap will meet the demand as housing prices continue to soar in Baghdad, and myriad slums grow with inadequate water, sewage, and electricity.  

Rather than accept and accommodate growing populations, local authorities have often ignored, marginalized, or demonized those in informal settlements. For instance, in 2010, Syria was emerging from a three-year drought, an influx of Iraqi refugees, and a reform program that eliminated subsidies on which many farmers had grown reliant. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded into Syria’s cities, and thousands lived in tent cities that ringed Damascus. In an attempt to push people back to the countryside, the government decreed that aid could only go to those who stayed on their desiccated land. It explicitly forbade international humanitarian support to migrants living in tents around the capital.  

Government officials and long-time residents in southern Iraq have also discriminated against urban newcomers, effectively excluding them from formal employment and education opportunities. In 2018, the governor of Basra province, Asaad Abdulameer al-Eidani, gained popularity by limiting legal residency in the city to those with proof of homeownership. It has become a winning strategy to demonize those from rural areas as “outsiders,” accusing them of criminality and of straining basic services. In 2019, Eidani said, “All the crimes in the city are being done by people who immigrated…We need to stand against it.” The same attitude holds true across much of the Arab world, where states view informal settlements as producing social ills and sullying a city’s cosmopolitan image. They seek to scapegoat migrants for their own inability to shore up housing, services, and employment.

Still, the global trend toward urbanization is unlikely to be reversed, and failing to accommodate it better could be disastrous. The expansion of slums and unplanned growth will make future urban planning that adapts cities to climate change more socially, economically, and politically difficult.

On the other hand, if governments built up their cities more sustainably and inclusively, they could turn a seemingly harmful trend into one that adapts to climate change. Urbanization is an opportunity to move away from an agrarian economy—to which the most water-stressed region in the world is not well-suited—to other sectors.

Enhancing basic services like municipal wastewater treatment could also have dramatic effects for climate adaptation and mitigation. Recent studies suggest that urban methane emissions are three to four times higher than previously estimated, with untreated wastewater being an underappreciated source. While methane persists in the atmosphere for less time than carbon dioxide, it causes such an immediate and sharp temperature spike that its impact is 80 times that of CO₂ for 20 years after its release. Proper sewage treatment would have an immediate impact, not only on reducing methane emissions but also reducing waterborne diseases.

There are political impacts of failing to better absorb this population, too. In Tunisia, the family of a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi could no longer provide for the family on the farm. Mohamed turned to selling fruits and vegetables in the city, until the morning of December 17, 2010, when police confiscated Mohamed’s scales because he did not have a permit. After the governor refused to hear his complaints, Mohamed set himself on fire, and the rest of the Arab world with him. While the frontlines of climate change may be on the farm, the final battle may be in the cities.